Spin Control  

July 2, 2006



Johnny Cash, "American V: A Hundred Highways" (Lost Highway/American) **1/2

Johnny Cash began recording his last proper album the day after completing 2003's "American IV: The Man Comes Around," and he continued through the grief and failing health that followed the death of his wife June Carter Cash a few months later. His own mortality was clearly on his mind, and producer Rick Rubin tells us Cash intended this disc as his final statement. Unfinished at the time of Johnny's own death in September 2003, Rubin chose to wait until all of the tributes waned before releasing "A Hundred Highways," returning to the studio to finish the album by augmenting Cash's vocals with instrumentation by top-drawer musicians such as Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, Beck sideman Smokey Hormel and guitarist Matt Sweeney, a veteran of Billy Corgan's short-lived Zwan.

"I never thought I needed help before / I thought that I could do things by myself," Cash sings in the opening track, "Help Me." Written by Larry Gatlin and once covered by Cash's former Sun Sessions bandmate Elvis Presley, the song is a plea to the Almighty, but it can also be heard as Cash's statement on two of the key partnerships in his life -- with June, of course, but also with Rubin, the unlikely producer of the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and Slayer who inspired a late-career artistic resurgence that will stand as one of the most extraordinary in the history of American popular music.

Unfortunately, the fifth and final installment of the "American" recordings lacks many of the traits that made its predecessors so remarkable. Understandably, Cash's vocals aren't nearly as powerful, but even more troublesome is the weaker song selection, which is heavy on schmaltz that even Cash can't elevate (Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," Rod McKuen's "Love's Been Good to Me") and overly staid spirituals.

One of the triumphs of the earlier albums was the artist's ability to find God in surprising places -- in the execution chamber of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" or amid the soul-crushing despair of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" -- at the same time making a statement about the genre- and generation-blind strengths of the very best songs. This was not nostalgia; it was as vital and immediate as popular music ever gets.


Dashboard Confessional, "Dusk and Summer" (Vagrant) *1/2

My favorite moment at Lollapalooza 2005 came when the Brian Jonestown Massacre hurled insults across Hutchinson Field at Dashboard Confessional, whose driving force, Chris Carrabba, was of course too meek to reply. In rock 'n' roll, chaotic energy trumps quiet sensitivity every time: Sales aside, who was ultimately a more important artist, Iggy Pop or James Taylor? As a leading light in the self-important emo movement, the model-handsome Carrabba often provoked snickers, even if you admired the early, melodic "just a boy, his guitar and his poems" phase of his career.

Carrabba took a sharp turn toward full-band bombast with 2003's "A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar," and now, after a stint as the opening act for U2, he's gone completely over the top, recruiting U2's producer, Daniel Lanois, as well as mainstream hack Don Gilmore (Avril Lavigne, Duran Duran), and spending three years crafting an album so overblown, strident but ultimately flaccid that you'd think it would make Adam Duritz blush, if it weren't for the fact that the dreadlocked bozo makes a cameo on "So Long, So Long," a piano ballad that unabashedly rips off the Counting Crows' "A Long December." (For "Stolen," he cribs from U2's "With or Without You.")

With vocals that range from an intimate whisper to operatic caterwauling, you'd think Carrabba was parodying ultra-earnest mainstream FM rock if the lyrics weren't so cringe-worthy for their alternating angst and "we can change the world" bravado. Take, for example, the introductory couplets of the opener, "Don't Wait": "The sky glows / I see it shining with my eyes closed / I hear your warnings but we both know / I'm gonna look at it again / Don't wait, don't wait / The road is now a sudden sea / And suddenly, you're deep enough / To lay your armor down." As deep as the sea? Try as shallow as a puddle. And instead of laying your armor down, kids, how about slapping ol' Chris upside the head with a helmet?